Alzheimer's: a struggle for patients and caregivers   

By Jennifer Lassiter
star staff

  The nation is mourning the death of former President Ronald Reagan. A funeral at Capitol Hill Wednesday honored possibly one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history known for his remarkable communication skills.
  "The challenge of statesmanship is to have the vision to dream of a better, safer world and the courage persistence, and patience to turn that dream into a reality," Reagan stated during a speech on March 8, 1985 during the second term of his presidency.
  The former president's battle with Alzheimer's is a struggle that many caregivers and patients in our community know all too well. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's affects approximately 10,000 people within East Tennessee, as well as parts of Southwest Virginia. The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer's accounts for more than 75 percent of such diseases.
  Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that impairs brain function, which results in odd behavior, impaired thinking, and memory loss. Alzheimer's mainly occurs in patients older than age 65, although it can affect younger people as well. As the disease progresses, the final stages can inhibit communication, walking, swallowing and ultimately result in death.
  According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's disease currently affects 1 in 10 people over the age of 65, 1 in 5 at age 75 and 1 in 2 at age 85. These numbers are staggering, especially when considering long-term care facilities and caregivers in our area.
  Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, although there are medications that can prolong mental functions allowing patients diagnosed with the disease to live a normal life for a longer time.
  Judy Price, a licensed clinical social worker at Sycamore Shoals Hospital (SSH), evaluates patients in the community. Price works at New Leaf, a geriatric psychiatry ward at SSH, and deals not only with patients with Alzheimer's disease but other related dementia. Price has worked at SSH for three years, and in social work field for six years.
   "The saddest thing I see, are family members who become aggressive and have personality changes, and their sons or daughter are devastated," Price said. "People say 'my mother wouldn't normally act like this'; the person they know is really gone."
  Price generally sees people on the "front end" of their disease, when they become off the wall or in bad shape. Nursing homes often times call because a person becomes uncontrollable and harmful to others. At the SSH geriatric psychiatry ward they work on getting patients back to their "baseline" so they can return to nursing homes.
  When their conditions worsen, patients are sent to locked or secured units. Locked units are to keep patients safe. In the more advanced stages of Alzheimer's patients behavior can become combative or harmful to themselves or others.
  According to Price, researchers have been working hard. Since she has been in the field "three or four" new drugs are being used that, when she began her career in social work.
   It is estimated by the Alzheimer's Association, the number of people with Alzheimer's is expected to more than triple by the middle of this century, increasing the strain on nursing homes and caregiver supporters.
  One local nursing home is planning for the future. Life Care has blue-prints for building a separate, secured facility. Life Care Center of Elizabethton, is currently waiting for approval from their corporate office in Cleveland, Tenn. to begin construction. They are striving more than just a secured unit; they hope to make it the first "Alzheimer's Unit" in Elizabethton.
  Tammy Hyder, director of marketing and admissions at Life Care said, "There is no secured or lock-down unit anywhere in Elizabethton."
  Life Care Center of Elizabethton is striving to label their new building an "Alzheimer's Unit", which is different from a secured or locked unit. In an Alzheimer's unit, patients have to reach certain requirements from the state. For example, they must be ambulatory and diagnosed with Alzheimer. In secured units, patients can include any with mental dementia. "Fifty-six percent of this facility includes residence with Alzheimer's, dementia or progressive diseases," Hyder said.
  Plans for their facility includes adding new showers, nursing stations and bathrooms, which will hopefully for Alzheimer's patients only. The new facility will add 20 more beds to the facility, which holds 154 currently.
  The Northeast Tennessee-Southwest Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association is holding its sixth annual Alzheimer's Education Symposium Tuesday, June 22 at the Centre at Millennium Park in Johnson City. The symposium is designed for anyone that is providing direct care for and Alzheimer patients. This year's meeting will focus on providing a quality life for Alzheimer's patients.
  To make reservations or for additional information contact the Alzheimer's Association at (423) 928-4080 or by e-mail at